Marxism and the Open Mind


John Lewis


The Marxist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time

[During 1946 the B.B.C. ran a series of talks under the title of ‘The Challenge of Our Time’. The issues raised were somewhat inadequately dealt with, and seven lectures on the Communist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time were delivered by Professor Bernal, Professor Farrington, Professor Levy, Professor Haldane, and others. The series was introduced by the following lecture, which was entitled: ‘What is the Challenge of Our Time?’]

THERE is abroad in certain intellectual circles, among philosophers, theologians and literary men, a spirit of profound depression. They are doing their best to infect the rest of us with their gloom. Canon Demant said in his recent broadcast in ‘The Challenge of Our Time’, ‘All sensitive people feel that there is a doom on our civilization.’ Professor Woodward feels that the growing pessimism of our times indicates that we are ‘rediscovering the tragic sense of life, that existence has other than worldly dimensions, and that there is no guaranteeable progress towards an earthly utopia’.

A few months ago there was a conference of university teachers to consider how far students possessed a definite world view, a faith to live by. The conference was forced to confess that they found no such faith. On the contrary, they found ‘a collapse of ultimate principles and ideals, an increasing area of subjective disruption, cynicism and lack of faith’. Professor


Lewis Mumford spoke of the ‘inevitable disintegration and degeneration of life when the members of society lose their vision, find no meaning in history; and lack standards by which to judge actions’. [1]

The Listener, commenting on the series of Broadcast discussions, declares that ‘the belief that the accepted standards of society are in dissolution is plainly spreading’.

This widespread loss of faith is the expression in the minds of men of the disintegration of their world, and if it were unaccompanied by new beliefs in the world that is coming into being the prospect would be a gloomy one, for as Whitehead says:

‘Mankind can flourish in the lower stages of life with merely barbarian flashes of thoughts. But when civilization culminates, the absence of a co-ordinating philosophy of life, spread through the community, spells decadence, boredom and the slackening of effort.’

Underlying this feeling of insecurity and lack of purpose is the sense that something is happening to our world, that we are helpless spectators of a cosmic disaster. Alexander Miller, in his book The Christian Significance of Karl Marx, expresses the spirit of these fearful times:

‘Events are out of hand, our generation is in the grip of gigantic forces whose nature no man can understand and which are beyond the power of men or of democratic assemblies to control. The future of society is being shaped by influences impersonal or demonic, so that intelligent intervention is impossible or meaningless. This sense of overmastering fate is shattering in its effect on personal responsibility. It takes the stuffing out of men, it creates numbness of mind and soul, a sense of helplessness and sheer frustration.’

Professor Madariaga has noticed another portent. Not only is something profoundly disturbing happening to the Western Spirit, but ‘the depth and gravity of the crisis may be measured by the fact that a growing number of men of science are being converted to Communism. Their intellectual power and their capacity for sifting data and for discerning truth is far above the average,’ and yet they are being converted to Communism!

1 Synthesis in Education, Addresses given at the Summer Conference of the Institute of Sociology 1946.


‘The purity of most of them is above suspicion,’ and yet they support this anti-liberal faith and bow to Marxist dogma! Yes, on top of all the other horrors, the last and the worst symptom of our times, the one that they all are aware of, though only some are brave enough to blurt out their worst fears, is that communism is waiting for us at the end of the road.

You see what they are really saying: The older faiths are crumbling, but a new faith has been born, the faith to which increasing numbers of scientific thinkers of our age are turning. Just as the fear of Communism is behind the international politics of our day, so in the ideological sphere do we find this last desperate huddle of frightened philosophers wondering what they can do to stave off the intellectual menace of Marxism.

What, then, has happened to the world? There are many who would like us to believe that the trouble begins with ‘dangerous thoughts’, that in a more or less normal and well-balanced world certain prophets of evil and philosophers of disintegration have appeared and begun to corrupt our minds. Then the world begins to fall to pieces. If that is indeed the case, then what is needed above all is a return to intellectual orthodoxy. Put men’s minds right, and the world will quickly find itself again.

They are putting the cart before the horse. The disintegration of philosophy, and the confusion of ideas, is a reflection of deep-seated contradictions in the very nature of society, and if we want a faith to live by, if we want something to take hold of, we shall never find it if we desire above all things to preserve the world as it is.

Alexander Miller spoke of ‘The sense of overmastering fate’. That is getting nearer the mark. That is the underlying feeling that is responsible for the collapse of philosophy. The world is running away with us, and we can no longer control it. We see social disintegration, we anticipate physical extinction, and we can do nothing about it. People see and fear forces that they cannot control.

The fact of the matter is that the existing world order is in process of dissolution and a new world is coming into being. To many it seems like losing everything. To others, however, it seems like the birth of a new world, like gaining everything. Men were scared at the great social and intellectual changes which brought the Middle Ages, the power of Catholicism and


Feudalism, to an end. They were scared at the birth of astronomy, later at the discovery of evolution. They are still more scared at the threat to class privilege. Now, in our day, we see the beginning of the end of the exploitation of man by man that has endured for centuries. That is what scares people. That is what makes some people feel that life is losing its meaning. A world where you cannot live in leisure on the labour of others is a world that has lost its rationality. There has never been anything quite so terrible to the privileged in the world before. Always in past revolutions when one privilege was curtailed, another came into existence. Privilege and exploitation themselves remained. This it is that has sent a wave of horror around the world, from the first days of the Russian Revolution to the downfall of the reactionary governments of Europe at the end of the Second World War, and the spread of Communism in China.

We should be making a great mistake, however, if we underestimated the strength of the order which is passing away. This order, although defeated on the field of battle and overcome by the new socialist governments of Eastern Europe and Asia, has still, as its basis, the greatest plutocracy the world has ever seen. It is fighting with desperation and with every weapon in its armoury, from the atom bomb to an anti-Soviet propaganda machine that rivals that of Dr. Goebbels (whose work it carries on where he left off). Every social system, faced by the peril of death, will make one final and ruthless effort to avert its doom by destroying or suppressing competing forms of life. Such systems may defy death long after the diseases of senility have wasted their strength, and their foes have given them the mortal wound. That was the significance of fascism, and of the forces which once supported it, and now refuse to extirpate its remnants. That organized attempt to hold up the next stage in social evolution, although it has experienced a setback, has still some hope that it may succeed. We find it today in the Western alliance against Russia, and in the violently reactionary governments of the Middle East which are ruthlessly suppressing all progressive political movements, in the hysterical anti-communist feeling in the United States, and in the continued waging of the Cold War.

Now this last-ditch struggle is fought not only on the field of


international politics, but on the level of philosophy and religion. Ideology plays an important role in all periods of social transition. Philosophies are not merely systems of ideas worked out in academic seclusion, the fruit of speculation of men of leisured learning. Ideologies are of two kinds. They are either the organizing conceptions of a progressive class giving its interpretation of the world that it is mastering, and helping it to understand the forces it wishes to control; or the philosophy of a declining class, by which it seeks to buttress its power and by which it opposes the class which threatens it with destruction. Ideas are not disembodied notions, but the creeds of bodies of men whom they inspire to action. Hence the opposing doctrines of our time. Hence the challenge of our time. On the one hand there is a creed of pessimism, defeat, and despair in human nature, strangely coupled with a desperate attempt to rally the anti-communist forces to the ideals of ‘Western Civilization’ which is confessedly in disintegration, and on the other hand, the positive faith of scientific humanism, of Marxism. This is ideological war on a world scale. Counter-revolutionary ideology must defend each threatened point with some appropriate sophistry and must attack with especial vigour what threatens the main positions of privilege.

The philosophies of counter-revolution can be summed up under three heads:

(1) The attack on reason and science.

(2) The revival of mysticism and the attempt to find refuge in another world.

(3) The doctrine of the corruption of human nature.

(1 The philosophies of Unreason can be summed up in Hitler's exhortation to the German people: ‘Think with your blood, not with your heads!’ It is the philosophy which either denies the validity of scientific reason, falling back on intuition, feeling, and superstition, or restricts reason to the smallest possible limits and looks for enlightenment as to life’s meaning to some spiritual faculty revealing truths not to be discovered by reason.

(2) Mysticism affirms the existence of a Spiritual World which. is man’s true home and to which he should devote himself rather than to the coarse materialism of finding something to eat and getting a roof over his head. The principle and purpose


of this faith is well summed up in the statement by the Reverend D. R. Davies in one of a series of broadcasts on ‘The Defeat of Modern Man’—‘Somehow or other, by hook or by crook, this world must be robbed of the importance which it has had in men’s minds for the last hundred years. There is another world, or order of life, which is more important still.’

What interests are served by persuading India’s starving millions or the poverty-stricken peasants of Italy, Spain and the Middle East of the unimportance of their earthly life? Whose axe is this Christian minister grinding? I think we know. He is a very poor follower of one who made it his task to feed the hungry and succour the sick, about whom it was said, ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away.’

(3) The doctrine of the total depravity of Human Nature has for centuries been the excuse for tolerating every kind of injustice and for despairing of the possibility of social amelioration. It has cast a deep gloom over the minds of millions and led us to distrust our natural instincts and to believe that there was something wicked in fullness of life. We had thought that this bit of medievalism was dead, but here it is again, attempting to convince us that man’s nature is altogether too corrupt to allow him to establish a just Social order or to achieve world peace.

1. The Attack on Reason

Let us turn first to the attack on reason. Its significance is clear. It reflects a changed attitude of the middle classes to science. When capitalism was in the ascendant they profited from the achievements of science, and with every new discovery the capitalists and bourgeoisie rejoiced. But now science is no longer trusted and reason itself is in doubt. What this means is that capitalist civilization cannot cope with its own problems. Man, nature, society, economic forces, are incomprehensible and incalculable. Now the bourgeoisie must believe in incomprehensibility for the simple reason that the science of society provides an answer to these problems which is not agreeable to them, just as the witch doctor who earns his living by selling charms resists the scientific explanation of disease. But the real failure is neither of reason nor of science. The trouble is not that science has no guidance for us today, but that there are people in the world


who fear a world in which a scientific attitude compels us to order and control economic forces to satisfy human needs.

Nor is there anything to distrust in reason, provided we do not mean by reason that frozen logic which denies the possibility of change or the kind of rationalistic materialism that reduces man either to matter in motion or to a collection of instinctive drives. But that mechanistic approach is a fault not of Marxism, but of conservatism and of competitive capitalism, which sees in social life only the blind impact of forces and denies the possibility of a consciously planned social order. The reason in which we put our trust is the logic of inner, necessary, dialectical development, according to the rational laws of change which the science of sociology has elaborated.

‘Faith in reason’, says Professor Whitehead, ‘is the faith that at the basis of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery.’ The cult of unreason repudiates science, law, rational control, humanism, and turns back to the blind laws of the jungle, regresses into the superstition of the savage, the nonsense of astrology, the worship of these prejudices and passionate feelings which are called intuitions. It is a reversion to barbarism which must follow a refusal to live by the light of knowledge.

2. Mysticism

Now let us take the second of these errors. Here we must prepare ourselves for a little hard thinking. In so far as this philosophy pretends to put us in touch with a transcendental world, a world above or beyond this one, and asserts its superiority over the world of space and time, it is really affirming that ideas, rather than things, are the object of all knowledge as to life’s meaning, that ideals have a reality of their own, apart from our thinking.

It means that we rest our faith on a pre-existent perfection, which is already there, which is more real than this imperfect world of struggle and sin. Our task is not to improve this world, but to persuade ourselves that the ideal is already ours if only we knew; the task is to change men’s minds about the evil in the world, to reconcile them to it, instead of to change the world. It is clear once again why slum-owners and business men who desire to keep wages down, want this philosophy widely proclaimed to the working classes.


Absolute values and absolute moral principles also depend upon this doctrine. These immutable rules belong to the world of the utterly sacred, and we owe our first and last duty to its commands. Ethical conduct is submission to the laws of eternal right. An American philosopher [1] declares that the last unquestionable metaphysical right, beyond all proof but absolute in its authority, is the right of property. He anticipates that from this firmly established position conservative forces may advance to re-establish those other rights which a materialistic and socialistic age is trying to sweep away. But are these principles really found by human reason, discovered up there, when we lifted our eyes to the Eternal? Or are they, as is the case in certain other ‘frame-ups’, put there by someone first for us to find?

We shall find only too often that these ‘metaphysical rights’ so far from being rooted in the nature of things change from age to age, coming into existence to serve a social purpose and supplanting the principles of an earlier age. Yet in every case they are advanced as eternal, God-given, sacred and axiomatic. The principles of Western civilization we are now asked to accept as Divine Commandments are the rules of the social order that is now in manifest decay. It is not for us to subordinate the urgent needs of our generation to the principles of the society that denies us the satisfaction of those needs. We cannot help ourselves by taking over the philosophy of the very ruling class we are engaged in fighting. We need, of course, a morality and principles of our own, which reflect the human needs of a classless society—and, may I add, because they do so, are the only moral principles which are permanently rooted in the objective world, and which will never pass away.

3. The Case against Human Nature

The third line of argument in this campaign is The case against human nature. The Reverend D. R. Davies, who was so anxious that life should be ‘robbed of its importance’, now explains how this should be done. Not only must we concentrate our attention on the spiritual world and cease to bother about health and slums and food and houses and employment, but we must accept ‘the defeat of modern man’, who is too radically wicked to build a new social order. ‘Evil wells up in our society from

1 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences.


the abysmal depths of the perverted will of man,’ he tells us, and Canon Demant goes on to argue that socialism makes impossible demands on man’s moral sense and on his capacity for moral heroism. Every new novel from the pen of Aldous Huxley reveals his despair of mankind. Even The Times Literary Supplement says of him, ‘His despair covers a universal moral vacuum. Pessimism could go no further. Despair could not fathom deeper.’ And very cogently adds, ‘It seems a little odd that so incommunicable a sense of indwelling superiority should lead him to write a novel about human beings at all.’ Professor Adolf Keller is filled with the same despair. ‘Human nature and the human mind seem to be at grips with some dark and incomprehensible power which we can neither understand with our intellect, nor reach with our imagination, nor dominate with our will, nor do we exactly know what to do with it.’ We have here, he says, ‘the uprising of irrational, demonic forces, with which mere moral philosophy cannot cope’. Where all this leads to, these people are themselves at pains to explain to us. Aldous Huxley proceeds on the basis of his view of human nature to pour scorn on all human effort at betterment, to sneer at education as mere stupidity and destruction, at politics as silliness and murder. The whole game is perfectly clear. Man is too wicked to make things better, so we can only leave things as they are, and having reached that conclusion the rich heave a profound sigh of relief and make their way to the Savoy Grill.

Now this is not so much ‘the defeat of Modern Man’ as the betrayal of modern man. Here are the preachers once again busy undermining the people’s front, and we know in whose interests. It is as a doctrine, of course, completely untrue, as any competent psychologist or anthropologist will tell you. It is also contradicted by common sense. As Haldane says, ‘If it were true, we should see strong men shouldering women and children out of the way in bus queues, murders would be as common in the streets of London as in Wild West films.’

In point of fact, man is an incurably social animal, and in normal conditions behaves as socially and co-operatively as any other social animal. But, of course, some forms of society create inhuman conditions and anti-social relationships. Treat a man


like a dog and he bites. Skin an eel alive, and it wriggles, but not from original sin! If such conditions and relationships are riveted upon us, because they are profitable to the people who buy Aldous Huxley’s books and pay Mr. Davies handsome fees to broadcast, it will be necessary to remove such people from their present dominant position. Society today is a black market society in a wider sense than the exact meaning of the phrase. In such a society we are all tempted to misbehave, because it is the quickest way to a decent income. Remove the black marketeers and establish an economy which offers a genuine chance of earning an honest living to all who are prepared to work and to no one else, and the behaviour of everyone improves. They improve because the black marketeers are in prison. But this is not, I believe, the way the Reverend D. R. Davies proposes to improve human nature.

Among those Absolute Values which we were considering earlier was the sacredness of human personality, which socialists are supposed to disregard. Now consider: here is a society in which wickedness, according to these people who despair of human nature, is rampant. The ordinary man has to put up with what is coming to him in this society, in which the only law is that of the jungle. Nothing can be done to alter it but preach sermons to the wicked. The Goerings and their like must not be interfered with; that would be a violation of the sacredness of human personality. They must only be preached to. Nothing could suit the gangsters of our time better. It is a most admirable doctrine! Thank you, Mr. Davies. But what about the sacred personalities of their victims? We thus reach the paradoxical situation in which the people who say they believe in the sacredness of human personality throw the individual to the wolves, accepting as incurable the innate wickedness of humanity—wolves will be wolves.

The truth is perfectly simple. The fulfilment of liberty, freedom and democracy can only be through the extirpation of that which denies it. The social order which makes human living possible, is an order and not a jungle. Conformity to the requirements of social living, pursuit of the common good does not cramp individuality; it alone makes it possible.

It is not social planning that destroys human personality. As Bernal says, ‘It was the thoughtless and blind pursuit of profit


that led to the mechanical horrors of the industrial revolution; not trying to run the world in a sensible conscious way.’ The common good we seek is not the good of the State, on the altar of which the individual is sacrificed. The common good flows back and is distributed among the individuals which make up society.

This so-called ‘respect for human personality’ is really nothing of the kind. It is on the one hand respect for the right of the gangster not to be interfered with in his anti-social activities, and on the other a ‘won’t-play’ attitude on the part of those who won’t join a trade union because it interferes with their personal freedom. On the same grounds no one would join an orchestra or a football club, or, I suppose, even take a hand at whist. Here is the kind of egoist who contracts out of all those social responsibilities by which people attain the common good, and by which alone you can do so many useful and profitable things that you cannot do by yourself, This is not sanity. This is not respect for personality. This is a ‘Robinson Crusoe’ philosophy that goes back behind the emergence of humanity to some anthropoid existence in treetop isolation; but it is a doctrine that sounds exalted and Christian while it does its dangerous work in preventing emancipation.

Let us clinch the whole matter. In this ideological war we see a last-ditch defence of threatened and undermined institutions and interests. In that war many writers and preachers are playing once more a disgraceful part. I am going to call it the philosophy of betrayal, the treason of the intellectuals. We have seen at Munich the treason of the politicians, we have seen the treason of the great industrialists and monopolists who in so many countries sold out to fascism. Now we witness another betrayal, that of the writer, who uses his talents and his pen to take up the work of Goebbels and the Nazi philosophers where they left off. This work is being done today by writers, broadcasters, lecturers and parsons. They profess to offer us a diagnosis of our spiritual sickness, but ‘they are not the doctors, they are the disease’, and would that they knew it.

But over against these false philosophies is a true one resting its faith on reason and science, acknowledging and welcoming the plain objective fact that society is not a static mechanism, but a vital, evolving thing, moving from the unconscious


to the conscious, from the impersonal to the personal, from necessity to freedom; knowing, too, that man is not a beast from the jungle but a being made for fellowship and growing towards the conscious control of nature and society to accomplish his human ends.

Marxism finds the meaning of life not in ‘another world or order of life’ nor even in some Utopia in this one, but in the potentiality of the very world we live in, and in the powers of man to unfold that potentiality.

‘For years to come’, said A. J. Cummings in the News Chronicle, ‘a stern vigilance will be needed to seek out and counteract the dark forces of evil which have been temporarily overcome in the terrible war. Even in our own country they survive. They are beginning to creep out from beneath the stones. We cannot afford to avert our gaze from the disagreeable evidence.’ It is the Marxist analysis of such dark forces that gives us both understanding of the present and hope for the future.

In contrast to the pessimism and defeatism and confusion of these philosophers of betrayal, whose influence I have examined, let us turn to Karl Marx. In the words of George Bernard Shaw: ‘He never condescends to cast a glance of useless longing at the past, his cry to the present is always, “Pass by, we are working for the future”. Nor is the future at all mysterious, uncertain or dreadful to him. There is not a word of fear, nor appeal to chance, nor to Providence, nor vain remonstrance with nature, nor any other familiar signs of the giddiness which seizes men when they climb to heights which command a view of the past, present and future of human society. Marx keeps his head like a god. He has discovered the law of social development, and knows what must come. The thread of history is in his hands.’


SOURCE: Lewis, John. “The Marxist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time,” in Marxism and the Open Mind (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1957), pp. 132-143.

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